The American musician explains how he developed a supple and varied bow arm motion, guided by his ear and musical instinct


János Starker, with whom I studied, introduced me to his concept of the bow-arm action, which he refers to as the ‘basic legato rule’. Starting with a down bow at the frog, you draw the entire arm out in one motion until you reach the middle, when the forearm opens out as the bow continues to the tip. On the up bow at the tip the forearm closes again and from the middle to the frog the entire arm works as a unit. Observe as the forearm opens on the down bow. In the second half of the bow the upper arm opens and rises, and consequently the bow stays straight to the tip. During the up bow the opposite takes place. However, whether changing up or down there is a single point where the string will stop vibrating resulting in a lack of continuity, which we want to avoid. Starker suggests that the bow arm should make a counter-clockwise circular motion.

After working through and internalising this process, I was able to elaborate on the basic concept. I noticed that many cellists indiscriminately use this elliptical circle regardless of the musical situation or technical need, but I believe the motion is more complex and have concluded that the entire motion may not be necessary. We play with different weights, pressure and string-crossings, and the motion of the arm must be constantly adapted to the musical situation.

At the frog the upper arm is low and as I move towards the tip of the bow the arm must go away from the body. However, if I always use the same motion when building a phrase the music can become too uniform. Like an artist drawing a straight line there should be infinite variety. I asked myself: how far down should my arm be when the bow is at the frog and how high does my arm need to rise at the tip? At the frog I might be applying more weight than necessary or at the tip I may raise my upper arm too high and lose contact. I concluded that whatever the dynamic, character or sonority, my ear would guide my arm with the goal of creating the most continuous and flexible movement possible at the bow change so that the listener hears no break in the sound.

Visualise the strings in one plane and the motion of the bow in another. Where the two planes intersect – the contact point – is critical. To sustain a continuous tone the motion should be as constant and consistent as possible. Once the sound has begun there should be absolutely no change of depth and the arm must remain completely level within the bowing plane without any interruption of the contact point. At the bow change I want to maintain contact and change direction without a stopping point. My ear dictates how much counter-clockwise circular motion should take place. If the circle is too vertical, then contact is lost. If there is no circle the contact is interrupted.

Let’s analyse the opening of Beethoven’s A major Sonata. The first two minims are slurred on a down bow; then the up bow, a dotted minim F sharp, is followed by five beats on a down bow. So the first three strokes are four, three, and five beats. In the second bar we have to speed up the bow to get back to the frog or we won’t have enough bow for the next five beats. How do we give proper character and get the correct speed? If on the F sharp we aren’t conscious of the upper arm we may have too much pressure or get an unwanted crescendo or swell as we desperately try to move back to the frog. How do we use the upper arm speed and pressure to produce the sound and character needed and still get back to the frog? We don’t want accents, swells or sliding bow. The motion must be circular and is guided by the upper arm.

As a first step in practising this, try a scale in triplets. Slur the first two notes on a down bow with the third on an up. Start slowly and observe what you have to do to get to the correct part of the bow. There must be no accents and it should sound beautiful. Listen to the musical and tonal result. Teach your body to be able to reproduce the effects until it naturally responds to musical instinct and desire.

This article was first published in The Strad's March 2007 issue. Subscribe to The Strad or download our digital edition as part of a 30-day free trial. To purchase single issues click here.